Something else Oak Island Associates | Evidence-Based Pipeline Rigor, At Last!

Evidence-Based Pipeline Rigor, At Last!

By focusing on just a few things that really matter, sales professionals and their managers can make a significant change in their results – on both a company and individual level.

Changing Behavior – Introducing Evidence-Based Rigor to Pipeline Discussions

Most of our clients are successful even before they come to Oak Island Associates. Their leadership has the vision to see what challenges lie ahead, and they typically set aggressive goals for market share and profitability for their organizations. The challenge our client’s face today is one of uncertainty in the face of Covid-19, and the need to be even more precise than ever before when it comes to forecasting.

It’s not uncommon, especially now, to see companies impost a prefabricated one-size-fits-all sales processes, and their associated Key Performance Indicators (KPI), on their sales organizations only to see little change in behavior. Even worse, the distraction and push back from the field can stall a slow, healthy improvement, causing a brief but confusing hiccup in key channels of communication, like between first-line sales managers and their teams.

The approach that has worked the best, we find, is to leverage existing best practices and enhance them with solid, relevant recommendations to create a process that looks native from the outset. And by doing the hard work of self-discovery to identify appropriate CVOs, instead of the typical KPI, which may be lagging in nature, companies accelerate down the path of changing behavior to achieve new business outcomes.

Once the sales process and CVOs have been identified, we continue working with clients to develop a plan to deploy, embed, and sustain behavior change in the organization. Deployment itself is highly situational and depends on the culture, geography, and multiple other factors to execute successfully. Common to any deployment are five key elements necessary to change the behavior of sales professionals:

  1. Measuring and managing adoption rates
  2. Testing the CVOs relentlessly at the line
  3. Embedding a leadership discipline vertically in the organization
  4. Giving managers tools to coach
  5. Tracking, measuring, and using data

If this looks like change management, it is. While any transformational change of this magnitude should be guided by a proven framework, like John Kotter’s eight steps of leading change, we’re focusing on a few basic steps and drilling down to a layer of best practices that have proven to be key differentiators for successful organizations.

  1. Measuring and managing adoption rates

Inspection is key to measuring adoption rates when a sales process is cascaded to the field. The idea is not to add new inspection on top of existing metrics, but to substitute more effective metrics for less meaningful ones. CRM systems lie at the core of our ability to track adoption. Unfortunately, many CRM systems already track a myriad of activities (KPI), which may be lagging indicators that salespeople and their managers find onerous and less than useful. We advocate a paradigm shift away from tracking activities and toward measuring progress through CVOs.

By definition, CVOs confirm active movement through a sales cycle. As sales managers track and inspect these outcomes, they gain the most powerful indicators to assess progress in the pipeline, building confidence or spotting red flags. To track adoption, we replace traditional fields of data capture for activities with CVOs. Over time, frequency equals adoption.

Is the target 100%?  No. As we work with clients to map and deploy sales processes, we infuse the idea of situational flexibility. This simply means the sales process is a powerful guideline to be leveraged, but each sale requires the situational application of some activities.

As we begin to track frequency of association of CVOs to opportunities, it is critical to also track close-ratios, comparing those with CVOs to opportunities without them. This provides powerful evidence to first line managers that by managing to these key indicators, close rates and associated performance will improve. This answers the “What’s in it for me?” question for both sales managers and sales professionals.

  1. Testing the CVOs relentlessly at the line

Just because a field within a CRM system is completed, it doesn’t mean the verifiable outcome was cleared in a quality manner. Populated fields in CRM rarely offer insights into the qualitative elements of particular activities, and there is no exception here. But because we have reduced the number of factors managers must monitor and oversee, we can introduce the element of qualitative inspection.

When a sales professional performs a series of required sales activities, feedback from the client becomes a verifiable outcome. If the verifiable outcome was not successful, the cause usually lies in important activities being skipped or performed inadequately by the sales professional. A key element of making CVOs operational is to equip managers with the tools to diagnose a breakdown in process. We have successfully accomplished this in a variety of companies, across multiple industries, by developing diagnostic questions that serve as a toolset for managers.

  1. Embedding a leadership discipline vertically in the organization

Just as mid-level leadership may set expectations of line management to focus on CVOs and test them qualitatively, so should the next higher levels adopt a discipline around this process. Most senior executives we speak to routinely travel with field sales professionals and sales managers on key calls to clients. This is an ideal opportunity to perform qualitative checks on CVOs. Prior to a client meeting, we coach senior managers to ask where the client and/or opportunity are in the sales process and to quiz the sales professional about the quality of the verifiable outcome.

Changing the conversation in the field is critical, but not enough on its own to create enduring change. Leaders at all levels need to seek out evidence that the conversations have truly changed by continuously challenging the quality of the pipeline.

  1. Giving managers the tools to coach

The use of qualitative questioning to check that CVOs have been successfully cleared is never a substitute for coaching. Instead, these conversations are the starting point for true coaching. When key activities in the sales process are repeatedly missed or performed poorly by sales professionals, it is the manager’s job to coach to the lack of skill, will, or ability to perform. The verifiable outcome conversations help to diagnose the issues that should be coached by managers.


  1. Tracking, measuring and using data

We contend that tracking and measuring CVOs should replace much of the current activity reporting that sales professionals are required to do today. This refined focus allows companies to become more efficient and nimble, as they manage to the fewest metrics that make the most sense. It has been our experience that an appropriate number of leading indicators, or CVOs, is between nine and 12 for a robust, solution-centric sales process.

We recommend CRM as the right tool for tracking CVOs, and this information should be tracked in three dimensions: 1) frequency of association of CVOs with opportunities; 2) close ratios from each verifiable outcome to a win/loss decision; and 3) velocity from one verifiable outcome to the next.

Change behavior to changes business results

By focusing on just a few things that really matter, sales professionals and their managers can make a significant change in their results – on both a company and individual level.  This can and should be done in times like these, where uncertainty seems to be the rule rather than the exception.

Many companies already employ CVOs in their sales process. The key – and what differentiates Oak Island Associates – is to identify outcomes that are truly leading indicators of customer engagement. The result leads to greater confidence in sales forecasts and, ultimately, business results